HARTFORD, CT — A Connecticut group whose mission it is to enhance the public’s understanding of Islam has filed a federal lawsuit against three federal government agencies for failing to turn over information related to policies, communications, and statistics related to visa processing and screening.
The lawsuit, filed by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-CT) and a similar organization in New York, seeks information from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and the State Department.
The complaint filed in U.S. District Court last week asks all three defendants to search and disclose the requested records. It’s been more than 60 days since those records were requested and no information has been produced.
Representatives from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and U.S. Customs and Border Protection said they don’t comment on pending litigation. The State Department was unable to be reached.
Represented by Yale University law students, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are seeking to give their communities a greater understanding of what to expect if they need to travel.
The lawsuit comes as the latest version of President Donald J. Trump’s travel ban went into effect Thursday night — along with a raft of exemptions that allow in people from six Muslim-majority countries with “bona fide” ties to the United States.
Following a ruling from the Supreme Court last Monday, customs agents at 8 p.m. were empowered to crack down on certain visitors from six countries.
Certain travelers from the predominantly Muslim countries of Iran, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen are barred from entering the U.S. for 90 days. All refugees are barred for 120 days.
CAIR-CT and Make the Road New York are filing this lawsuit because they suspect that the Trump administration has been accomplishing the same goals as the Muslim ban through informal means, Joseph Meyers, a Yale Law School intern, said last week.
Meyers added: “Individuals arriving at U.S. airports are subjected to additional screening, questioning, and, sometimes, detention based on the perception that they are Muslim or belong to another disfavored social group. There have also been reports of similar discriminatory practices at U.S. consulates abroad and at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration services in the visa process. Trump may be trying to do unofficially what he could not do legally.”
“Especially given the Supreme Court’s recent decision allowing a small part of the travel ban to take effect and the Trump administration’s intent to implement “extreme vetting,” transparency about the policies the government is adopting is essential, and an unofficial policy that excludes Muslims and other disfavored groups would be just as damaging and dangerous as the first two Muslim bans,” Meyers said.
The lawsuit said the tenor of the most recent presidential election is the reason they’ve been persistent in seeking information from the federal government to get clarity about who would be impacted by any travel bans put into place.
The lack of response to their inquiries, the complaint said, is the reason for the FOIA lawsuit.
The complaint said that in addition to calling for “extreme vetting” of immigrants, in his first week in office Trump continued his anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric, moving quickly to issue what the suit termed a “thinly veiled Muslim ban” executive order that blocked Syrian refugees from entering the United States.
The ban, the complaint said, additionally suspended all refugee admission for 120 days and prohibited individuals from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States for 90 days, including Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen
The complaint notes that even though numerous lawsuits were immediately brought challenging Trump’s order, and courts preliminary enjoined that ban, Trump replaced it with another executive order, which multiple courts again enjoined.
The lawsuit goes on: “The same day he signed the second Muslin ban executive order, the President issued a memorandum directing the Secretaries of State and Homeland Security to develop procedures for “enhanced vetting” for applications for visas and immigration benefits.”
All these actions, the lawsuit said, implicate the work of organizations such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Connecticut (CAIR-CT) and others who do similar work.
“Plaintiff CAIR-CT endeavors to enhance the public’s understanding of Islam,” the lawsuit said.
The plaintiffs state that their requests for policies, communications, and statistics from agencies named in the lawsuit concerning immigration have not been responded to in a timely manner.
“Despite the intense and justified public scrutiny surrounding these issues, the defendants failed to timely respond to plaintiffs’ requests,” CAIR-CT said. “Instead, over 60 days after plaintiffs submitted their FOIA (Freedom of Information) requests, defendants have failed to disclose a single record.”
In the complaint, CAIR-CT said it wants the information it is requesting because the organization is “concerned that in recent months, either as a result of the travel ban orders or otherwise, defendants have been targeting individuals based on their actual or perceived religion, ethnicity, race, national origin, and/or other group identity for special treatment with respect to entry document applications, visa processing, and screening of individuals arriving as U.S. ports of entry.”
CAIR is America’s largest Islamic civil liberties group. CAIR-CT is based in Hartford, with an office in New London. There are 150,000 Muslims in the state of Connecticut, including 35,000 in central Connecticut.